Scotland the brave or Scotland the victim?

Wednesday 5 November 2008

Is there more to the history of Scotland than the Highland clearances, William Wallace and Mary, Queen of Scots?  Do Scots think of themselves as a nation of inventors or a nation of victims?

According to Scottish history experts, history books and works of fiction have created heroic nationalist characters that have successfully buried Scotland’s darker misdemeanors.

Professors Tom Devine and Alan MacInnes will lead a debate on the historical views of nationalism and Scots identity at the University of St Andrews tonight (Thursday 6 November).   Professor Devine is the Sir William Fraser Chair of Scottish History and Palaeography at the University of Edinburgh, while Professor MacInnes is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Strathclyde.  Both have published extensively on Scottish history.

The historians will examine the two conflicting notions of Scotland passed down the generations, both of which they suggest have an over concentration on the more positive, romantic tales from the past.

Professor Devine explained, “In this debate we will look at the two characteristic manifestations of `nationalist history’, both completely different from the other but both equally flawed. The first I term `the Burns Supper School of Scottish History’, which celebrates uncritically the great deeds of Scots in the past, and concentrates on personalities while providing little context and tends to be weak on cool analysis.

“It presents the nation historically as a source of progressive ideas, pathbreaking inventions  and a powerful force for good in the world. The darker aspects of Scottish history, such as Scotland’s indirect role in slavery or in the Canadian fur trade, are rarely if ever mentioned.

The Scots impact on the world is renowned, but not all positive, with a notorious record in areas of exploitation.¿

In his side of the debate, Professor Devine will cite the book Scottish Enlightenment (2002), by Arthur Herman, which in America boasts the subtitle ‘ How western Europe’s poorest nation invented the modern world and everything in it.’

He continued, “The second variation I term `Scottish history as victim history’ is at the other extreme. This depicts Scotland at the mercy of external forces, usually English in origin, sees much of the nation’s past through dark-coloured lens and concentrates over much on tragedies and disasters. The genre’s classic themes include the sad story of Mary, Queen of Scots, the failed but romantic Jacobite rebellions and above all the Highland Clearances.”

Professor Devine’s contribution to the debate will examine writers such as the Canadian author John Prebble, who he claims `made a fortune satisfying the voracious demand for this type of Scottish history’, with such bestsellers as Glencoe, Culloden and the Highland Clearances.

Professor MacInnes will look at the role of Scots’ writing of national histories, which he believes must engage not just with England and Ireland, but the `other three kingdoms’ in Scandinavia.  “Scots have also been guilty of writing nationalist history – not so much to support Scottish independence as to endorse British Unionism,” he commented.

This week’s debate is the first in a new annual series hosted by the University’s Institute of Scottish Historical Research, a major new initiative for St Andrews founded in 2007. With a focus on research into Scotland’s past, the Institute draws on the experience of nearly twenty historians of Scotland including the Historiographer Royal for Scotland, Professor T.C. Smout.

Professor Devine believes that, ‘Scottish history has never been such a hot topic – it  impinges on  a range of  pressing issues  in politics, school education, the identity of the Scottish people and Scotland’s sense of itself in the world.  Yet it is replete with ingrained myths, passionate controversy and intense dispute – a wonderful subject for debate.  I detect a hunger among the people for greater knowledge of the Scottish past, in large part because most of them were deprived of it at school.’

The first annual ISHR (Institute of Scottish Historical Research) debate `National History or Nationalist history?’ will be held at the University of St Andrews, School III, St Salvator¿s Quadrangle, St Andrews today, Thursday 6 November 2008, at 5.30pm.  Speakers are Professor Tom Devine (University of Edinburgh) and Professor Allan Macinnes (University of Strathclyde). The event is open to the public.






Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews
Contact Gayle Cook, Press Officer on 01334 467227 / 462529, mobile 07900 050 103, or email [email protected]
Ref:  Nationalism 051108
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